According to documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, and published by the Danish newspaper Information, the agency collected intelligence about other countries’ positions before and during the Copenhagen negotiations, which failed to reach a binding agreement.
The goal at the UN climate summit, known as COP15, had been to pen a global agreement on CO2 emissions reduction, that could replace the Kyoto Protocol. This was designed to slow global warming which a scientific consensus holds will have disastrous consequences for life on earth, if unabated.
Some called the summit "the most important of its kind since the end of World War II" because more than a hundred government leaders participated. Never before had so many heads of state been gathered at a UN event.
But the leaked documents show that the US felt under pressure because of its role as the largest historic emitter of carbon dioxide. The NSA's focus in relation to climate change thus mutated into spying on other countries to collect intelligence supporting US interests, rather than preventing future climate catastrophes, the documents show.
While many countries formulated promises that were increasingly ambitious, the Obama administration never moderated its position. The Americans only offered a 4-6% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 1990 levels, despite the fact that the UN recommendation for developed nations was 25-40%. As the agreement ended up allowing individual climate pledges, the 4-6% reduction became the American climate goal.
According to Information, it's almost certain that the Americans obtained a Danish draft proposal, sparking outrage among some countries, ahead of the conference. This was eventually leaked to the news agency Reuters and the British newspaper the Guardian.
Many Danish officials and negotiators had no idea that they had been spied on by the NSA, but reported that the Americans seemed "very self-assured," according to Information.
"Obviously, if you know the strategies of the other countries, their thoughts on the negotiations and their bottom line in terms of how far they will go, you have a huge advantage," one source said.
Another commented that it was "incomprehensible" that the NSA would spy on COP15 as the climate conference had nothing to do with preventing terrorism.
'Digital arms race'
EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard, who was then Denmark's minister for climate and the government's chief negotiator, told the newspaper Politiken in a short email that if the new information was true, it was "upsetting".
Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes said that the revelations, if true, were "worrying".
"We should try to avoid a digital arms race. Those who have the capacity to spy will always try to do so. It is after all one of the world's oldest businesses," the commissioner said.
Many developing countries were also outraged by the news, according to the Guardian.
"Would you play poker with someone who can see your cards? Spying on one another like this is absolutely not on. When someone has an upper hand is very disconcerting. There should be an assurance in negotiations like this that powerful players are not going to gain undue advantage with technological surveillance," Martin Knor, an advisor to developing countries at the summit said.
"For negotiations as complex as these we need maximum goodwill and trust. It is absolutely critical. If there is anything that prevents a level playing field, that stops negotiations being held on equal grounds. It disrupts the talks," Knor added.
Jairam Ramesh, the then-Indian environment minister and a key player in the talks, commented: "Why the hell did they do this and at the end of this, what did they get out of Copenhagen? They got some outcome but certainly not the outcome they wanted. It was completely silly of them."